First goal could define Quakes-Red Bulls series

Eastern Conference semis foes unbeaten after scoring first

Not surprisingly, the six MLS teams that posted the best winning percentage in matches where they gave up the first goal – Dallas, Salt Lake, Los Angeles, Seattle, Colorado and Columbus – all made it to the postseason this year.

And then there are the New York Red Bulls and San Jose Earthquakes, a pair of front-runners to their cores.

Both teams fell under the league average of a .183 winning percentage when conceding first – New York came in tied for 10th at .167 (1-9-2), while the Quakes were tied for 13th at .125 (1-10-1). And both were unbeaten when they scored the first goal: New York ranked first at .967 (14-0-1) and San Jose fourth at .929 (12-0-2).

So, is there any point to continuing once Chris Wondolowski or Juan Pablo Angel pot the initial goal Saturday night in the teams’ first-round opener at Buck Shaw Stadium?

Yes, insists San Jose center back Jason Hernandez.

“We’ve had games where we’ve gone down and come back, scrapped our way into getting some points,” Hernandez said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem for us.”

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That’s debatable. With a come-from-behind 2-2 tie against Columbus on June 2 and a shocking 2-1 injury-time victory in Philadelphia on July 10, the Quakes haven’t earned a comeback point in more than three months.

When San Jose have trailed, they’ve had a propensity to go further down rather than catching an equalizer. In six of 12 matches where the opponents scored first, the Quakes went on to trail 2-0 after the next goal. Three times they managed to tie things at 1-1. The remaining three ended as 1-0 defeats.

“I think what happens is, every guy on our team feels the accountability on their shoulders to go and start making plays, and so guys get undisciplined, and getting out of our shape,” Hernandez said. “We’ve got to understand that it’s a two-game series, so discipline on the game plan has to be carried out, in both games.

“It can’t just be because something doesn’t go right that now we’re all on a different page, doing our own thing. We’re going to make sure we understand it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

The easiest way to solve the need for mounting a comeback, of course, is to take the lead and stay ahead. The Quakes, however, have been spotty this season about opening games strong at home.

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“I think we’ve got to come out and start off on the right foot,” Quakes center back Brandon McDonald said. “We’ve got to come out 110 percent, everybody chasing balls, putting in the effort and leaving it on the field, because after this, it could be over. We’ve got to leave it all on the field.”

The last meeting between these teams was a match filled with end-to-end action, but given the even greater importance than normal of a first goal, the Red Bulls might be content to steal a page from the Quakes’ playbook, choosing to sit back and look for a counterattacking opportunity.

“Who’s to say – New York may come out and take the game to us a little bit, but at the same time, you know they’re going to be smart about it,” Quakes right back Chris Leitch said. “They’re experienced guys. They know they need a result, and a good result to them (in the opener) may be a tie. So they may not open up. Who knows what they’re going to do. We’re going to have to identify what they’re doing, break that down.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes

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